It looks like a 3-4 outside linebacker is more of a standup DE with some additional duties that include playing in space. This position appears to be more of a 'point of attack' style position. A 4-3 linebacker seems to play more off the line and is more of a 'play in space' kind of player that is more likely to pick up TE, backs for coverage and have more outside contain responsibility. I rarely see 4-3 linebackers get many sacks.

Is it common for a team that uses a 3-4 to have one of their outside linebackers be more of a blitzing linebacker and the other be a play in space person? Then the inside linebacker to the side of the blitzer, shift out wide. So in a base defense a 3-4 would be very similiar to a 4-3, but with 1 DE standing up. This is how I think the cowboys used Demarcus Ware. So now that he is switching to a DE in a 4-3, its very similiar to his previous position.

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    Welcome to Sports SE! Don't consider it being "dinged," but rather learning the ropes. If you have several questions, feel free to ask, but I suggest to decomposing your questions unless they rely on one another to which they can be combined. See this for more info.
    – user527
    Aug 22, 2013 at 15:03
  • I think these rely on one another. They seem like they are all related.
    – Bob
    Aug 22, 2013 at 15:14
  • I only see one question however. The rest is supplemental commentary. Please elaborate.
    – user527
    Aug 22, 2013 at 15:15
  • OLB's in a 3-4 are pseudo-defensive ends. While they do occasionally have coverage assignments, (like TEs routes and RB screens), their general goal is to blitz. See players like Joey Porter, Clay Matthews, DeMarcus Ware as you mentioned, Terrell Suggs. From my experience watching the NFL generally the OLB in a 3-4 that blitzes is the Right OLB. As to why this is, I'm not entirely sure to be honest. Perhaps they want to blitz the blindside of right handed quarterbacks. 3-4 Defense - Linebackers
    – Nick
    Aug 22, 2013 at 15:26
  • so does the ILB to the side of the blitzer generally cover the role of the OLB in a 4-3? Or do teams do some other kind of shift. If the OLB is at the point of attack, teams still need someone to cover in space. This tells me at a 3-4 and 4-3 are just semantically different. It just means one of your DEs is standing up.
    – Bob
    Aug 22, 2013 at 15:38

4 Answers 4


The main difference between a person suited for a 3-4 outside linebacker vs a 4-3 outside linebacker is their ability to get off the ball and play at the line of scrimmage. Starting with a head of steam from 4-5 yards away is very very different from lining up across from a man and beating him off the ball. This takes more initial burst and leverage. While blitzing from the second level takes timing and agility and speed.

At almost all levels your DEs are the core of your defense. Coaching pee-wee through college I can say my first pick would be a left defensive end (left because most QBs are right handed). You don't know how many stud players I have tried to "turn" into a DE but they eventually went back to linebacker. I call these players my "thinkers". At 4-3 outside linebacker you want your "thinkers" there. These are players who read the ball well, analyze plays, reacts to blocking patterns, reacts to route patterns and so on.

Now your 3-4 outside linebacker is a "doer". This guy just wants to go. You can line him up on the line and he will play like a D-lineman. You put him in coverage though and you usually have two options. He can cover the short flat or he can man up on a TE or back. Put him in space he will think too much. You don't want your attack dog thinking when a crime is taking place - and a team trying to get a yard on my defenses is a crime!

There are very very few players I have coached that are both "thinker"s and "doer"s. Well maybe there were a lot but there were very very very few that were really good players that could do both. If I labeled you a "thinker" or a "doer" those are big skills and you were a good player, and if you were a hybrid you were probably 2nd-3rd string.

Some other notes:

  • some 3-4 outside LBs can move to DE. Most of the time they were picked to OLB position because of their size. If their penetration outweighs their lack of size then they may merit a move up to a 4-3 DE if schemes change. You will hardly ever see a OLB move to a 3-4 DE position which is generally a two gap technique (and "doer"s can't do 2-gap).

  • some 4-3 DE have moved to OLB. If a DEs size is being taken advantage of they may move to an OLB position in a 3-4. Every once in a while they may transition to a 4-3 OLB but that is basically saying they aren't good at getting after the QB.

  • a 3-4 OLB is not a glorified DE. He may line up 90% of the plays during a specific game like a DE but that is just that game. What happens in the NFL if an OLB does this (I have never coached a 3-4 and have very very rarely seen it used in college) and what I would do, is simply pass every down. You keep your 3 big bodies with 2-gap technique with no exotic blitzes (because the left OLB is just their left DE) and I will throw laddered slants to your left side all day. If you do this you are leaving potentially your corner, safety, and ILB on my TE, RB, and WR. This doesn't compute right? If your corner doesn't play shallow zone my TE and RB catches outs all day. If your corner does play a shallow zone my WR runs streaks all day (and when your safety starts cheating posts).

  • a 3-4 OLB is a hybrid that can play on the line or at the second level. With a good schemed 3-4 an OLB may "blitz" (play as a DE) maybe 30% of the time. Now if they have a very favorable matchup maybe 80-90%. How do I get to 30%? Well you have 2 OLBs. That would cover 60% of the snaps. You will rush 3 on maybe 15-20% of the snaps. The others should be filled with ILB or safety blitzes.

  • this question is really around pro football. The 3-4 isn't really relative at any other level. Some FCS schools run the 3-4 sometimes. To run it right not only do you have to have 3 stud DL to run 2-gap but you also have to have intelligent players that understand all the scheming involved to run a 3-4 right. It isn't that players can't or aren't smart enough it is just that only at the pro level is there enough time involved to learn how to do it without opening up glaring holes because of assignment mistakes.

  • at most an OLB in a 4-3 will blitz 10-15% of the time. Generally your 4-3 OLB has to be faster because they need to cover a 3rd of the field instead of a 4th - this is a HUGE difference. Also generally speaking size isn't much of a concern for a 4-3 OLB with some major colleges playing guys around 200 pounds (and lighter).

  • if you have a 4-3 OLB that gets after the QB well then chances are most of their pass rushes have them coming in as basically a DE in nickel and dime packages. Note that this is more of a high school or college thing. If an OLB rushes the passer well in the pros he moves to a 3-4 team or to DE so he makes more money.

Special Note: For those with ****ass high school coaches that ran a 3-4. Chances are you had one of your OLB line up on the line (who acts like a DE), probably on the weak side. Then you have the other 3 LBs plus 2 corners on the second level. Then you had a free safety, then a "rover" or some other sort of roaming strong safety.

Guess what? That isn't a 3-4. That is a 4-3 in Cover 1 (or simply a 4-4 with the SS assuming role of OLB). High school coaches like to say they are running a 3-4 to make themselves feel current or smart. In 25+ years of coaching I have not seen a true 3-4 run at the high school level. Even with the fake 3-4 it puts undo pressure on your corners and even if you have an athlete advantage over me I can probably scheme my guys open (yes we would pass most downs).


The main difference in the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses are the gap responsibilities. There are also many variations of each defense. The Eagles were known to run a variation of the 4-3 under Andy Reid called the "wide 9" referring to the 9 gap the players would line up on.

With the 3-4 the defense ends have to be able to stop the run as well as rush the passer. The reason is that they control most of the middle of the field along with the two inside linebackers. Usually one outside linebacker will rush the passer and the other will be responsible in coverage (zone or man).

In the 4-3 defense, the defense ends have less run stopping responsibility and more pass rushing responsibility. The 2 defensive tackles and usually 1 or two of the linebackers will be responsible for the run depending on the situation.

Either way, players will be lined up and responsible for certain gaps. In the 4-3 defensive ends have the wide gaps, where in a 3-4 linebackers have the wide gaps (with wide 9 being more like a 3-4).

There is a good article that covers the gaps and responsibilities more, the link is at the bottom.

I think the main idea is that offense and defense will continue to evolve and players will fit differently in different schemes. The 3-4 linebacker may fit in as a 4-3 end or a 4-3 linebacker and vice versa. Depends on the player and the scheme.

4-3 vs 3-4 pass rush


Most defenses match their lineups to the offensive team. Instead of having a left outside linebacker and a right outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, most teams have a strong-side linebacker and a weak-side linebacker. The strong side linebacker lines up opposite the side of the offensive line with the extra lineman or tight-end. What each defender does on a given play is also determined reactively from what the offense does but I think it's safe to say that the weak side linebacker blitzes more often than the strong side linebacker.


Bum Phillips was one of the first I recall using a 3-4, with Robert Brazile as the pass rush WS OLB. The famous Broncos "Orange Crush" Defense was 3-4 as well. But it was Lawrence Taylor who revolutionized the 34 OLB position. Compared to 4-3 OLB, the 3-4 requires a more agile, faster, quicker, and athletic player. Most 4-3 OLB would be shifted inside to play the SAM backer in a 34 defense.

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